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The Dirt / Cannabis is just a plant


Garden writers write about plants, whether those plants are ornamental, edible, medicinal, or troublemakers. In the troublemaking category are invasive plants and poisonous plants, including those that cause health problems such as allergies or skin rashes. One troublesome plant is in a category all its own, and is still illegal to grow, smoke, or sell in many states. If you want to start a cocktail party argument or Thanksgiving family fight, bring up the legalization of Cannabis, also called marijuana, weed, reefer, pot, or, in my college days, grass.


It’s time to talk about the plant that is properly called cannabis. Cannabis: The Next Tomato! Is the name of a lecture given at August’s Garden Writers Association Conference, held in Buffalo. The talk was presented by Dan Heims, who founded and co-owns Terra Nova Nurseries (Oregon), and Jeff Lowenfels, the longest-running garden columnist in North America (Alaska Dispatch News) and author of Teaming with Microbes, Teaming with Nutrients, and—his newest—Teaming with Fungi—The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae (Timber Press, 2017). Both of these respected plant people think it’s time that fellow garden writers get smart about cannabis, its present and future medicinal and pain-management value, and how to grow it where it is legal to do so. I attended the class because it’s my job to educate my readers or audiences about plants, and this one is a hot topic. Also I have a personal interest: I want help for my mother, age 101, who has chronic pain. Most pain medications have side effects she can’t tolerate. So-called “medical marijuana” appears to offer an answer.


The stigma

The story of the demonization and prohibition of cannabis—or marijuana as it was dubbed during the smear campaign—is interesting, and somewhat shocking. The short version:


• For 5,000 years, cannabis was used as a therapeutic agent in many cultures.


• In the 1930s, after FDR ended alcohol prohibition, Harry Anslinger was appointed chief of the new Federal Narcotics Bureau—and it needed a job to justify its existence.


Anslinger hit upon the “devil weed” as his ticket to career advancement. At that time, about two percent of the population used cannabis, which was never seen as harmful. However, most users were African-American or Mexican, providing racist Anslinger a perfect opportunity for scaremongering. He hit upon the Mexican term for cannabis: marijuana.


The racist campaign messages that followed are appalling, some of the (unbelievably) milder ones mentioning that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…. Satanic music {jazz and swing} results from marijuana use .… You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother….” Reefer Madness was more than a fear-inducing film; it was hate-mongering.


In 1937, a congressional hearing to evaluate prohibition leaned on Anslinger as the primary witness, and he used his own news stories as evidence. The result was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which morphed into the Controlled Substances Act of the 1970s.


William Randolph Hearst, and, later, DuPont executives, also supported the anticannabis campaign because they had an interest in suppressing hemp production (the hemp plant is also a cannabis species) that could compete with the Hearst timber plantations (paper producing) or DuPont’s artificial fiber production. Hearst was also known for rabid anti-Mexican views.


The American Medical Association, led by Dr. William Woodward, argued that no medical reasons could justify prohibition of marijuana, but the smear campaign—a powerful model of the dangerous potential of yellow journalism—won the day.


Today, countless historians, analysts of social engineering, and political science experts point to a direct link between the stigmatization and prohibition of marijuana and the economically disastrous and ineffective state of the “war on drugs.” The argument is that we are supporting a vast prison industry filled with minor-league marijuana users and small-scale sellers, largely pulled from African-American, Latino, and Mexican neighborhoods, while the criminal drug cartels continue to thrive. And it all started with a racially motivated stigmatization of a product that may be much less dangerous than legal alcohol.


This article is not intended to argue on behalf of legalization or acceptance of recreational cannabis. That is for you, the courts, and future generations to decide. Medical cannabis (the term marijuana to be dropped in my vocabulary because of its racist history) is another story entirely. Cannabis sativa (or Cannabis ruderalis and many other varieties and cultivars) is just a plant, but a plant with powerful benefits that are only beginning to be understood. Historic stigma has slowed or prevented its study and development for medical uses that could have helped or comforted many people.



New York State and the law

In July 2014, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature enacted the Compassionate Care Act to offer New Yorkers a comprehensive, safe, and effective medical cannabis program. The NY State Department of Health lists some 28,000 certified patients. As of 2017, this state’s program is still one of the most restrictive in the country. It is still illegal to dispense smokeable pot products. Physicians must take a training course and register with the DOH (expansion to include nurse practitioner and physician assistant certification is in progress). There are limited production and dispensing centers. The process to acquire the product is cumbersome, and, finally, it is expensive. Only recently was chronic pain added to the list of qualifying conditions, which many consider important because it could significantly decrease the dependency on opioids with their dangerous side effects. (Other qualifying conditions include cancer, AIDS, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis, along with other neurologically based conditions.) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—already approved in twenty-four of the twenty-nine “medical marijuana states”—may be added to the list.


The garden writer’s position

In Alaska Dispatch News, Jeff Lowenfels addressed his job as a garden writer when Alaska voted to legalize the recreational use of pot as well as the possession of up to six plants. He reviewed the historical maligning of the plant as I have done, and mentioned that seventy-some years ago, writers could discuss Cannabis sativa for medicine and fiber production without anyone blinking an eye. He has continued to educate.


In WNY, I hope that readers can walk boldly through the smoke surrounding the cannabis issues with their eyes open. As we talk about it as citizens, I suggest we separate the medical from the recreational use, and understand that the products are quite different. Let’s free potential users (like my mother) from the stigma, so that people who are suffering won’t hold back because they are embarrassed or fearful. Let’s understand how a plant with powerful potential, from pain management to fiber, was so damaged and misrepresented historically. Then, if you wish, enter the discussion about recreational use intelligently. That very common practice, made legal in several states (and likely to become legal in many) is also largely misrepresented and misunderstood, although a large portion of the population acknowledges having used it without dangerous incident.


I have written this not as a lawyer or doctor, nor as a person with any financial interest in the promotion of cannabis. I am motivated as a daughter and as a garden writer whose job is to write about plants—even plants with so much baggage.




Medical Cannabis for Chronic Pain Relief by Steven Leonard-Johnson and Kelly Walker (both RN, PhD, with extensive pain management backgrounds, 2016); drugpolicy.org; and many other websites, blogs, and articles                


Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and lecturer, author of Great Garden Companions (Rodale Books), CNLP (certified nursery and landscape professional), and recognized in WNY for expertise in organic and ecologically responsible gardening.


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